Kyle G. Volk. The Perils of “Pure Democracy”: Minority Rights, Liquor Politics, and Popular Sovereignty in Antebellum America. Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Winter, 2009), pp. 641-679
“With local option, reformers and supportive legislators implicitly weighed in on two broad and interrelated questions that had been confronting the Anglo–American world since the rise of popular sovereignty. First, how was ‘‘the knowledge of public sentiment’’ obtained in self-governing societies, and second, were elected representatives and government officials obliged to adhere to majority will when implementing public policy? Prior to local option, these questions were most readily addressed in debates over the ‘‘right of instruction’’: the right of constituents to instruct their elected representatives on how to act and vote and the duty of representatives to follow those instructions. These debates centered on whether representatives were extensions of their constituents, obligated to conform to their demands and represent their specific needs, or if they were chosen to deliberate on policy issues, keep the general interest as well as their constituents’ needs in mind, and ultimately use their ‘‘own judgement’’ when voting on legislation or administering law” (653-654).
“Local option presented an alternate position on the relationship of public opinion, elected officials, and government administrative bodies as well as a particular view of what ‘‘public opinion’’ was and how it was best ascertained. Representatives offered a policy choice, asked voters to register their views at the ballot box, and bound government administrators to implement the majority will, in this case by either issuing licenses or withholding them. Local option fused the public opinion-finding function to the creation and execution of public policy, removing any intermediary between law and voters and guaranteeing, supporters argued, that public policy explicitly mirrored public opinion. ‘‘Public opinion fairly expressed,’’ resolved the Albany County Temperance Society, ‘‘should govern in this as well as in all other matters regulating the government of a democracy.’’ Reformers assumed that local option constituted fair expression and praised its poll-like ability to provide ‘‘tangible, reliable evidences, as to public sentiment.’’ They conflated public opinion with the will of voting majorities, which in most states included only adult white males, and also implied that public opinion was best discovered when issues were placed in isolation and voters were given only two choices. Representatives circumscribed the range of opinion by offering only a choice of ‘‘License’’ or ‘‘No-License.’’ There was no third or fourth ballot option, such as the ability to vote ‘‘Fewer Licenses,’’ nor was there the chance to support, for example, licenses for hotels but not for taverns. Complexity was shunned; compromise positions were off the table. Such expressions of voting majorities were purportedly the purest embodiment of public opinion and democracy’s truest agent.
“These constructions of public opinion were calculated as well. Local optioners were eager to divest state legislators and other government officials of their traditional ability to gauge independently public opinion and to weigh it in the context of other short-term and long-term community needs. Legislators had ignored temperance reformers’ use of the more tried methods of establishing anti-license opinion through petition and memorial, and local administrators often had foiled their grassroots efforts to control local licensing. Furthermore, the traditional place of frequent elections in keeping lawmakers responsive to public opinion failed temperance reformers as state legislators backpedaled after the Massachusetts Fifteen-Gallon fiasco. Local option would authorize voters to circumvent nonresponsive legislatures and obstructionist government officials, and, by acting locally, they could assure pockets of success without having to await a statewide transformation.
“As never before, temperance reformers placed popular political empowerment at the center of their agenda; ‘‘the power of free suffrage’’ would, they argued, ‘‘exterminate the monster Alcohol.’’ Twenty years earlier leading reformers like Lyman Beecher advocated temperance in part to ensure that the expanding voting population, which many feared, possessed the moral qualities republican self-government required. By the early 1840s, however, leading reformers echoed other democratizers by routinely complimenting the ‘‘virtue and intelligence’’ of the people, and some even referenced contemporary democratic reforms. ‘‘If in the selection of Judges the people could be trusted,’’ asked attorney John Van Cott, ‘‘how was it that they could not be trusted in the matter of establishing grogshops in the corners of the streets?’’ Truth be told, local option supporters went beyond arguing that adult white males were wise enough to vote for a wider range of public officials. Instead, they suggested that the electorate was moral enough to decide directly public policy and implied that bare majorities were morally superior to government officials. Responding to a critic, one supporter signaled the transformation in temperance thinking. ‘‘Our correspondent thinks the people are not to be trusted. . . . They might not have been, in old rum-drinking times, but in these cold-water days, when the judgment is cool and men begin to think about their own best interests and the interests of their children, it might be found to be quite otherwise.’’ The temperance reform’s successful struggle against drink now legitimated the empowerment of men who would protect their families by putting the Rum Power out of business at the ballot box.
“Temperance women were fully cognizant that local option would make them reliant upon male voters. Writing in 1846 on the heels of New York’s first local option election and during the state constitutional convention, an unnamed author, musing about the ‘‘Rights of Woman’’ in a New York women’s temperance magazine, The Pearl, queried:
If all the women in New York were voters, how long would it be before their rights would be respected, in the making and the administration of the laws? How long would they permit the existence of three thousand tippling shops in which females never enter, but which are yearly making thousands of drunkards of their brothers and sons?
“For those thinking about woman suffrage in the mid-1840s, local option provided a critical context. Participation in this temperance battle catalyzed female politicization, no doubt exposing the limitations” (654-656).